For the first decade of my adult life, I was pretty good at being perfect.
It hadn’t always been that way. As a child, I’d been famously monstrous. I staged two-day tantrums. I was locked, screaming and kicking, into my parent’s Mini Metro. I made childcare professionals cry.
But by the time I entered my teens, I’d latched on to a far more effective strategy for dealing with my in-built terror and rage: I decided I would become so smart, so slick, so smooth, that all the terrible chaos of this impossible world would simply… slip off.
So, replete with 10 A*s and one A (mini crisis), then three As, then a first-class degree, I sailed into the world as clean and thin and unobjectionable as I could possibly make myself.
Surfing the last wave of a panicking job market, I became a social-media marketer and rapidly climbed the ranks. I travelled the world, giving speeches on innovation, the token double-X chromosome on stage, dispensing soundbites from behind my coy smile and good hair. I consulted inside Silicon Valley tech firms for weeks at a time, my days spent high on groupthink and Vitaminwater, my nights spent alone in hotel rooms, lovingly tending to my social feeds while my stomach ached.
It was working. I was in high demand. My salary was great. My Instagram game was strong. Then I finally committed to doing the one and only thing I’d ever really wanted to do: writing a novel.
And it messed the whole damn sweet deal up.
The first problem was that, to write a half-decent novel, I would have to find a way to tell the truth. My truth. And for a perfect person, truth is hard.
Now, truth isn’t the same as opinions. I was really good at those. I could come up with a clever-funny tweet in less time than it took to down a spirulina shot. Unfortunately, real truth is a little more complicated. It’s awkward and ambiguous. It’s messy and uncomfortable and strange. It can’t be plagiarised from another, better writer or plucked off a trending hashtag. Worst of all, real truth comes from emotion, not logic – so, if I was going to write a novel, for the first time in a good 15 years, I was going to have to feel.
Over the next eight years, I wrote draft after draft of a very clever, very complicated book. Every time I finished 100,000 or so words, I would show the masterpiece-in-waiting to my writing group. My writing group would smile and say lots of nice things about it. Then they would suggest, in an incredibly sensitive way, that I might try to “let go”.
How in the name of bullshit advice is one supposed to “let go”? I was furious. I was frustrated. I wanted to give up. I deleted every word. I started again. I wrote 100,000-odd words again. Again, I hit delete. I argued. I despaired. I staged grown-up tantrums – and, this time, I knew how to unlock the car.
Eventually, I realised I was feeling again. And then I started to properly write.
The second problem with writing a half-decent novel was that I would eventually have to stop.
Is the only acceptable measure of success necking Negronis on J K Rowling’s yacht while Neil Gaiman serves crudités and Rose Tremain tells dirty jokes?
For someone used to filtering every photo until it glowed with effortless glamour and reworking every tweet until it conveyed exactly the right amount of sassy snark, editing was a cinch. But having to finish a signature creative project, knowing that I would never again be able to change a single syllable?
Full of horror that this malformed literary shadow-self would hound me for all eternity, disgusting future readers with its festering flaws, I reworked its 27 chapters with frothing zeal. For every day spent writing, I got a little bit more skilled. But that also meant that, every morning, I could see how much better yesterday’s words could be. Round and round I went, deleting and resurrecting words on loop. At one point, my husband actually bellowed at me – nine months pregnant, wobbling on a medicine ball and sobbing over a particularly problematic adverb – to Step The Hell Away From The Screen.
Eventually, I had to admit that, although the novel I write tomorrow is always going to be better than the one I write today, it won’t ever exist. I had to accept that “flaws are OK”. And, of course, as soon as I let some early readers get their hands on it, I discovered that the misguided idiots somehow seemed to think that the flaws were the best bits. Also, 24 hours after I relinquished it to my agent, I gave birth. How’s that (I growled in my head, in between pants) for fucking letting go?
Of course, now the bloody thing is getting published, I’m having to face a new problem: the chance that it will fail. Having been inconceivably lucky enough to actually get the book on shelves, I’m not sure exactly where my boundaries for failure now lie.
How insufferable am I going to make this? Will I deem myself a total loser if it doesn’t out-sell Lee Child? Am I going to weep if Hilary Mantel doesn’t declare it the best thing she’s ever read? Is the only acceptable measure of success necking Negronis on J K Rowling’s yacht while Neil Gaiman serves crudités and Rose Tremain tells dirty jokes?
The fact is writing a novel has already turned me into a failure. I’m insecure and exhausted. I’m pale and flabby. I’m conflicted, confused and poor. I am, quite frankly, the least perfect I’ve ever been. But I’ve also learnt a life lesson that I’m hoping will make the next few decades of adulthood even messier and uglier and more exhilarating than the last.
Perfection is a form of hiding. It’s a way of shutting your true, weird, complicated self away in a shiny, air-conditioned car. It can feel like a refuge, but it’s also a prison and, one day, however diligently you try to drive, it will crash.
Happy endings have nothing on scary beginnings. So get out of the car. Kick, scream and cry on all available shoulders. Then find something to do that matters to you – and get the hell on with it, with all your terrified heart.
The Charmed Life Of Alex Moore, a grown-up adventure with a magical twist set between the Shoreditch start-up scene and the wilds of Orkney, is available to buy now